Ryan Horvat hasn't played since Game One. Andrew Crescenzi left Game Two early. Brett Sutter departed Game Three in the third period. One by one, the Ontario Reign's middle men have been falling to undisclosed injuries. Could Ontario make the San Jose Barracuda fall for good tonight so they could earn some much-needed rest?
With that in mind, Mike Stothers kept us in the pressbox guessing as to who would draw in, even minutes before the drop of the puck. Usually, the Reign skate an extra forward in warm-ups. Tonight, Crescenzi took the ice, while Horvat and Sutter sat. Curiously though, the faceoff ace was not part of line rushes, as Sam Herr looked set to make his playoff debut next to Nic Dowd. It turned out to be a crafty bit of gamesmanship by the Ontario head coach:
Herr, despite being in line rushes, not in...Crescenzi, who was out of line rushes, is in...Stothers used Herr as a red herring— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) April 30, 2016
Get it? Afterwards, Stothers quipped as he faced us, "I just mess with you."
San Jose, however, was not much amused. Facing elimination, they swarmed Peter Budaj from the get-go, recording more even strength chances (four) in the first five minutes than they did in any period last night. Nikolay Goldobin, who has probably been the Barracuda's most dangerous forward in this series, showed a lot of jump.
The visitors also showed a lot of chippiness. Alex Gallant took on heavyweight Paul Bissonnette in their respective opening shifts. Shortly thereafter, Kris Newbury and Michael Brodzinski batted sticks before the refs separated them. Then Jonny Brodzinski and Barclay Goodrow jousted.
All this happened in pretty much the first five minutes of the game. San Jose came to play, as they say. But as he so often has this award-winning season, the unflappable Peter Budaj cooled everything down.
Just minutes later, a Kevin Gravel point shot became a Sean Backman in-tight turnaround, which Aaron Dell kicked out. An unmarked Nic Dowd cashed in on the rebound—Mirco Mueller failed to switch with John McCarthy, who chased Backman—stemming the short-lived San Jose tide.
By the end of the first, the Reign had caught up in chances with four apiece.
To the Barracuda's credit, they kept swimming against this tide. An early second Kurtis MacDermid holding gave McCarthy a bang-bang blast at Budaj's pad. A few minutes later, they countered an Ontario three-on-two and Vincent LoVerde trailer laser with their own two-on-one opportunity. Then Barclay Goodrow forced a Jonny Brodzinski turnover above the half wall and immediately fired, Jeremy Langlois deflecting it home off parts unknown.
Halfway into the game, we had a game. That is, until we didn't.
Once again, Mueller looked like he was playing on another planet tonight. With about seven minutes left in the middle frame, he tossed a backhanded breakout up the middle to nobody in particular. Mersch claimed the prize, firing a turnaround that Dell juggled. Justin Auger roped in the rebound, Michael Brodzinski literally flew by, and impressively, instead of a hair-trigger snapper, the towering winger took the time to collect the puck and pick his shot, which was a top left corner cookie jar rimmer.
"I threw a little fake in there," noted Auger. "He comes out and challenges a lot...takes away the angles pretty well, so just kind of get him moving there."
It was a dagger, as San Jose, despite being down just one, never seriously threatened again. Well, that's not entirely true:
Did LoVerde deflect the alley-oop to Goldobin just a smidge to force a shank? Hard to see. But regardless, Ontario did feel like they were pulling ahead, enjoying a 6-3 chances edge in the middle frame.
11:12 left in 3rd, SJ down one, but ONT up 7-3 shots, 4-0 chances in pd— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) April 30, 2016
Despite the score, it never felt like the Barracuda were going to come back. The home team's confidence was palpable. "There’s times on the bench when you get a sense or a feeling that maybe things are getting a little unraveled," said Stothers. "There wasn’t that tonight."
With mere minutes left on San Jose's season, Auger and Karl Stollery went head to head for a Jordan Samuels-Thomas neutral zone chip-in. They canceled each other out, and the puck just sat at the top left circle, as if on a tee. A hard-charging Samuels-Thomas drove it into the cookie jar, shattering the wild card's sweet upset dreams.
JST picked up a loose puck and fired it high over Dell's glove hand. Seems to be the place to beat him tonight. 4:27 left.— Spike Coffman (@SpikeC20) April 30, 2016
Crescenzi added an empty netter to cap off a three-point night. Stothers revealed, "That was a game-time decision...Geez, looks like a great call."
After an evenly played series-opening split at SAP Center (total ES chances were 18 apiece), the Reign's ruthless efficiency at home was mesmerizing, as they closed out the Barracuda with a combined 35-16 ES chances barrage. What accounted for this sharp upswing in play?
"The forwards did a good job getting pucks 200 feet, making their D turn. It’s tough to go back all the time. You’re taking hits," observed Dowd. He then praised his own blueliners. "[They] did such a good job of taking away space in the neutral zone, great gaps. They were attacking guys before they even got to the red line, which was brutal...speaking as a forward, that’s challenging when D are cutting your space off like that."
The Western Conference top-seed's next challenge should prove to more significant. About two hours south of here, the San Diego Gulls had just knocked out the Texas Stars with a 6-2 wallop. Ontario and San Diego will renew their bitter rivalry this Thursday night at The Vault.
This schedule: pic.twitter.com/DSc25fazEO— Lindsay Czarnecki (@ReignInsider) April 30, 2016